I moved into Apartment 601, 345 Clarence Street, almost seven and a half years ago. I have never lived in any one place any longer. Previously, the longest I had lived in one place was four, maybe, four and a half years — a childhood home. As a matter of contrast, in New Zealand, during the five years I lived there, I count seven different homes.
The punchline: Apartment 601 is my least favorite apartment I have ever lived in. The story of my stay in that apartment provides one summary of the story of my time in Ottawa.
In February 2007, when I arrived in Ottawa, with a couple of bags, a guitar, and some new suits, I had a one week hotel stay in which to find an apartment, while, at the same time, starting my new job on the Hill. The building’s Clarence street location looked good and, because I was still in student-mode, when the rental agent showed me two apartments, I took the smaller, older, and much shabbier apartment because the rent was fifty dollars less.
One year later, I was pretty sure my time on the Hill would would soon be over. I would, of course, leave Ottawa as soon as that happened, so I decided that I might as well carry on with the shabby apartment — renting month-to-month. A year after that, I was working in the arts and wanted the freedom of having no lease. The low rent and location were important perks. A year after that, I had too much debt and too little income to move. The year after that, I was working a short-term contract. And, again, I was sure to leave Ottawa once the contract wasn’t renewed. After a string of contracts and, at last, a permanent position, upheaval at work made me wonder again if I would be in Ottawa for much longer. Besides, the location was great and the rent, thanks to rent control, was now very good.
Fortunately, I was saved by a good friend, who managed to dislodge me from the story in which I had ensnared myself. He was in need of a tenant and was happy to let me rent month-to-month. The rent was good and the location great. The apartment even came furnished, so I could once again tell myself that I was well-positioned to bolt when the conditions were right. I finally managed to fax the official notice to terminate my tenancy at Apartment 601 in May 2014.
The Ontario Government, it should be said, is partly to blame for my paralysis. To legally give notice in Ontario, one must give the landlord a full two months warning, which, in practice, means one really needs to know where one wants to be a full three months in advance. On more than one occasion, I was ready to pull the trigger on moving, until I counted off the months, and thought, “I have no idea if I will have any reason to be in Ottawa three months from now.” As a matter of contrast, in New Zealand, I only had to give three weeks notice.
Nevertheless, the catalyzing cause of my paralysis, undoubtedly, is this assumption that I will leave Ottawa any one of these days now. This assumption primarily exists, I think, because I was born and raised in Ottawa and swore not to stay or return. More than one old friend and acquaintance has said to me, “I never thought you’d come back.” Now, they say, “you’re never leaving.” I also want to say the assumption exists because I have never really seen myself in the mirror of the city, but, as soon as I say it, I realize it is the assumption itself that may be distorting my view.
Whatever the reason, and whether I stay or go, I am glad I returned and that I have stayed as long as I have. A few months ago, when I was certain that this was it, I’m really leaving this time, I started to draft in my head the eulogy for my time in Ottawa. I realized that my farewell speech would be one of gratitude, not regret. I’ve met some great people, reconnected with old friends, and, most importantly, terraformed the geography of memory that defines every space. Because of my return, and my Jedi-mind trick extended stay, Ottawa is no longer the city of my childhood and youth. I have remediated that brownfield of memory.
And now I find myself living in the very neighborhood in which I was physically born and in which the I-that-is-me was also born. Connaught Public School and Rosemount Public Library are where I first discovered the power of words to create, to remake, and to remediate. Words can transform. Words can also externalize and expel, like an ear ridding itself of wax, cleaning as it goes. If my life were a work of fiction, surely this would be the moment for a dramatic twist in the plot and even a climactic third birth.
Life, of course, isn’t a work fiction. It is bound by no dramatic conventions and is unimpressed by the narrative potential of a native son’s homecoming to a land that is strange only because of his literary exorcisms. Life isn’t art, however artfully we try to live it.
So, thanks, Apartment 601, 345 Clarence Street, despite all your shortcomings and very many false fire alarms, despite the fact that I lived in you for far too long because of an adolescent desire to tell myself a story of freedom, I will remember you well. I didn’t know it when we first met, but you were an incubator for a me that was coming to be.